Do you ever wonder whether certain things are becoming more common or if they are just following you around? Around where I live there seem to be an awful lot of cats – mostly playing cat chess against each other on every fence-post, bit of wall and flat roof going – or maybe it is just a few who congregate around me. Is every programme on tv in the mornings about property, antiques or fraud or am I just too lazy to change the channel? And, on a more serious note, are mental health problems more prevalent these days or is it just that we are becoming more open about them? My opinion is that it is the latter – problems like depression, anxiety and mental illness have always been there. It has to be a sign of progress that we can be as accepting now of OCD as we are of MS. This higher visibility of issues of mental health and disability is happening in real life but also, increasingly, in fiction. Books like Mark Haddon’s Curious Incident or Nathan Filer’s The Shock of the Fall have helped to familiarise us with autism and schizophrenia – they have shown us the human beings who live with these conditions.
In The Mirror World of Melody Black the focus switches to bipolar disorder: a condition which is thought to affect 1% of adults at some point in their life, often in their early twenties. So the main character, Abby, is in many ways a typical sufferer. Her highs and lows are detailed with little sentimentality – we see it all from her point of view so why would she be sentimental about it? And from what I have gleaned from friends who have bipolar many of the things that Abby goes through are completely typical – manic cleaning, over-indulgence in drink or drugs, anxiety attacks, crashing levels of self-esteem, days when getting out from under the duvet are not going to happen. I was struck by the way that phrases we all use towards friends who are going through problems, like ‘hope for the best, prepare for the worst’ are good for most people but go very wrong when, like Abby, your brain chemistry is just a bit wonky.
As well as giving a detailed (and, given that Extence is also a sufferer, a personal) view of what it is like to be bipolar we also get a glimpse of how it feels to care for someone with the condition. Letters which Beck, Abby’s boyfriend, sent to her while she is in hospital give us a similarly realistic view of his side of the relationship. We don’t get the same amount of depth on her relationships with her parents and sister – because we only hear it from Abby herself – but there is a suggestion of how hard it must be for all concerned. Amazingly though this isn’t a bleak book, it is shot through with a very dark humour. You really like Abby. It is hard to dislike someone who says that despite not being ‘a huge fan of Hemingway’s writing, I certainly admired his willingness to push the alcohol envelope’…
This is a very honest book. It has warmth and humour but it doesn’t flinch away from some dark and difficult issues. Gavin Extence is added to my personal list of authors whose work I will always want to to try.